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Change Trickling Through Colorado River Basin

As water leaders contend with unprecedented drought and demand, will the river people of the Colorado band together as regional citizens? Water policy expert Patricia Mulroy weighs in.

Research  |  Feb 10, 2016  |  By UNLV News Center

Lake Mead National Recreation Area. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

Editor's Note: 

Patricia Mulroy, a leader in the international water community, will present the University Forum lecture “Forging a Common Future: Becoming A Citizen of the Colorado River Basin,” at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 16, in the Barrick Museum Auditorium. As the general manager of both the Las Vegas Valley Water District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority, Mulroy helped guide Southern Nevada through an unprecedented period of growth and one of the worst droughts in the history of the Colorado River. She is now the Senior Fellow for Climate Adaptation and Environmental Policy as well as a Practitioner in Residence for the Saltman Center for Conflict Resolution at the UNLV William S. Boyd School of Law. Here’s she provides a preview of her free talk.


It’s 6 am. In Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Tijuana, someone is stumbling into the kitchen to grab that first cup of coffee. In the wide-open spaces of Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Baja, and Sonora, a farmer is opening his head gate to water his field and tend his herd.  In the depths of the Grand Canyon, a camper is emerging from his tent to marvel at the sight of an eagle winging across the chasm. Mechanics are adjusting enormous generators sending hydroelectric power to countless communities. And the birds of the Cienga de Santa Clara are heading out to find their morning meal. As distant and different as all this awakening life is, it shares one vital ingredient:  water from the Colorado River.

It is a river steeped in legend and lore and often its mere mention induces competition and conflict. For most of the 20th century our competing interests have been in constant collision. Each has jockeyed to advance his needs over those of his neighbors. We quickly forgot the underlying premise of the Colorado River Compact of 1922: that the river was to be developed and managed by seven equal partner states outside the framework of traditional Western water law.  Only in the last 25 years have we begun to realize that the framers of this river “constitution” were not as misguided as we thought and that cooperation and joint management of the system would be the only thing that would make a modern 21st century existence on this river possible.

Our supply is dwindling and the demand pressures are not subsiding. As science became more sophisticated and informed, we have come to realize that the amount of available water from this river is not as great as we once imagined it to be. Lawsuits and decrees over the decade further cut into what is reasonably available. And the beginnings of a fundamental shift in the climate conditions affecting the Colorado River Basin are reducing what we do have available even further. We have emerged from one of the wettest centuries in the region to the stark reality of a much drier future. At the same time global food demand is on the rise, urban populations are growing, and an ever-growing environmental ethic is demanding more resources be left in the system to protect the ecosystem.

This interconnected river community has, and continues to be, in an intense period of transformation. The fiercely defended individual water right is beginning to be moved aside by the notion of a shared responsibility and recognized interdependence. Attitudes are slowly changing as water leaders engage their communities in difficult conversations about doing more with less. These changes go right to the heart of how we see ourselves as communities and whether we can envision ourselves as part of a larger region. Yet to be born is the notion of living as the citizen of a river community, enjoying all the rights and responsibilities that accompany that privilege.